Child Welfare Agency Settles Lawsuits

Child Welfare Agency Settles Lawsuits

A number of Black officers have accused the Connecticut Department of Children and Families of racially motivated disciplinary action.

Published October 23, 2014

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Five employees who had their names added to a child abuse registry as a form of discipline by Connecticut's child welfare agency will be taken off the list, union officials told The Associated Press.

The fired youth service officers, including an outspoken critic of the agency, had been prevented from getting other jobs that involved interaction with children because of their placement on the Department of Children and Families list of people who have abused or neglected children.

A labor union said it had been working for about a year to address an increase in the number of workers whose names were placed on the statewide registry.

Paul Lavallee, president of AFSCME Local 2663, said the five covered by the settlements were involved in incidents where they failed to pay attention on the job and youths were injured. He said he has never known of the registry, created to make the public aware of people who pose a risk to children, to be used in such cases.

Individual settlements were reached in recent weeks between the union and the agency regarding the five, who worked at the Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown, according to the union. They've either been rehired with back pay or retired. The union has not named the workers.

The Department of Children and Families commented on the state's settlement involving only one of the officers, Cornell Lewis, who has made his firing known publicly. Lewis is a black youth services officer who has been involved in numerous protests to draw attention to what he says is a racist attitude at the child welfare agency and the Middletown school, the state's only secure facility for delinquent teenage boys.

"At times, it is not in the department's best interests to support an individual's continued employment in working with the high risk and vulnerable population of youth and families whom we serve," the department said in a statement regarding the action taken against Lewis.

Department of Children and Families spokesman Gary Kleeblatt declined to comment on the other four cases beyond the statement.

Lewis was fired in July 2013 after he and two other employees were looking at non-work-related content on a computer when a youth was injured. At the time, Lewis said his firing was retaliation for him being so outspoken. An independent arbitrator ruled that Lewis actions' did not warrant his termination but that he did deserve a 60-day suspension without pay.

The child welfare agency agreed earlier this month to settle a separate lawsuit originally filed in 2010 by Cornell and four other black officers who claimed they were the target of racially motivated disciplinary action. The department has admitted no wrongdoing or discriminatory actions.

Lavallee, who raised concerns of possible misuse involving the registry to the legislature's Judiciary Committee in March, said the arbitrator's decision in Lewis' case helped the union reach settlements with the four fired youth service officers. Earlier this year, Department of Children and Families Commissioner Joette Katz was approached by the union and a state lawmaker who heard complaints from workers about the agency increasingly placing people on the registry, which also bars them from interacting with children, such as a coach or a school chaperone.

"Particularly due to the serious consequences of placement on the registry, we need to be sure that individuals are not placed on the registry in an arbitrary or capricious manner," Rep. Matthew Lesser, D-Middletown, wrote to Katz in July.

In a response to Lesser, Katz defended her agency's actions. She said her department "must fully and fairly investigate all incidents of child abuse and neglect, including those in our own workplace." Katz said each decision concerning whether an allegation of abuse and neglect can be substantiated is "based on a careful examination of the facts found during the investigation."

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(Photo: Connecticut Department of Children and Families)

Written by Susan Haigh, Associated Press

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